Racist incidents lead to new equality initiative at Ford

In October 1999, talks between Ford president Jacques Nasser and UK union leaders resulted in agreement on new measures to combat racial discrimination and harassment within the company's UK plants. The move follows an employment tribunal case in which the company accepted responsibility for the racial abuse of an Asian employee by supervisors, and subsequent walkouts over other allegations of racism.

On 25 October 1999, a meeting between Jacques Nasser, president of Ford, and senior leaders of four UK unions - the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), the GMB general union and the MSF white-collar union - resulted in a joint statement outlining plans for a review of equal opportunities policies in the US-based motor manufacturing company's UK plants. The meeting had been sought by TGWU general secretary Bill Morris following an employment tribunal hearing in September at which the company was reported to have admitted liability for the sustained racial abuse of an Asian production worker, Sukhjit Parmar, by supervisors at the Ford Dagenham engine plant. The company said that the allegations had been fully investigated and were being dealt with through internal disciplinary procedures.

In early October, further allegations of racist behaviour, including a claim that an Asian worker was assaulted by a white foreman, culminated in unofficial walkouts by Dagenham employees. The TGWU warned the company managers that if they did not address race relations issues urgently the union would hold a ballot on industrial action.

The joint statement provides for a "diversity and equality assessment review" covering policy and planning, selection, development and retention of employees, communication and corporate image, corporate citizenship and a race equality audit. The president and chair of Ford of Europe will be charged with driving the review forward, and the company will appoint a senior manager with responsibility for diversity issues. The company and the unions are to establish a joint national equal opportunities and diversity committee, and similar committees will be formed in every Ford plant in the UK. A small joint steering group was given 90 days to develop further details of the plan.

Some observers suggest that the problem lies not with Ford's equal opportunities policies as such - which on paper are regarded as progressive - but with their implementation. It has been reported that, while more than 40% of production workers at Dagenham are black or Asian, fewer than 10% of salaried staff are non-white. Jobs in areas such as security and van driving are said to remain exclusively white preserves and promotion opportunities are limited. Accusations of racism and bullying have been directed mainly at foremen within the plant - a grade which is predominantly white. Union officials say that local management at Dagenham failed to act effectively against racist behaviour. At the 25 October meeting, Ford management and unions agreed that "outstanding procedural issues at Dagenham will be resolved as soon as possible within the plant". It was also agreed that discussions would take place between the TGWU and the company concerning a return to work by Mr Parmar.

The signatories to the joint statement believe that the plan will "provide a robust basis for achieving a workplace with equality of opportunity, where diversity is valued and which is free from harassment of any kind". Mr Morris said: "This is the fresh start that Dagenham needs. The agreement will restore confidence among the workforce that the recent problems of racial harassment will be ended."

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